The Revival of The Mosaic Murals Gracing The UC Berkeley Building
After more than 50 years of usage as a simple storage space, the crumbling 1904 structure known as the Old Art Gallery is finally getting a much-needed revamping. Its most notable features, 18-by-10-foot colorful mosaics, are currently being repaired and restored, so that future generations of UC Berkeley can enjoy them in all of their intricate glory.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a walk across the UC Berkeley campus you’ve probably stopped to admire the facade of the small one-story red brick building near Strawberry Creek. The amazing Byzantine-style mosaic tile murals gracing its east facade were always somewhat of a marvel on this otherwise quite ordinary decaying building.
Gorgeous mosaic artworks depict people playing music, dancing, sculpting, and painting. Mosaics were installed in 1936 and 1937 as part of the Works Progress Administration. Four large-scale mosaic murals, adorning the shallow arched niches of the building are called “Music and Painting” and “Sculpture and Dancing”.
The mosaic mural “Music and Painting” was designed and created by the famous abstract artist Florence Alston Swift. Swift was born in San Francisco, CA in 1890. As a San Francisco native, she began her art studies at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute, known today as the San Francisco Art Institute. She completed her studies in New York where she became an esteemed member of the influential group called American Abstract Artist. Swift exhibited her masterpieces in venues in San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, and more.
Swift’s panel features two colorfully dressed women playing violins and one woman carrying paintbrushes and a painting palette. Swift also designed and created charming patterns around the doorway and to the right side of the building.
The “Sculpture and Dancing” mosaic mural was officially designed by Helen Bruton, but it was in fact a joined effort of three women. At the time only one family member could be employed by the Works Progress Administration, so Bruton and her sisters, Margaret and Esther, completed the mural with Helen Bruton as the lead artist. Their mosaic mural depicts a man carving stone with a hammer and a chisel, and three women dancing. It is said that the Bruton sisters used Robert Boardman Howard, son of architect John Galen Howard, as a model for the man.
Bruton sisters were exceptionally talented Bay Area artists who were actively creating art from the early 1920s through the 1960s. During their long-lasting and prolific careers, they’ve mastered a wide variety of different mediums, including watercolor, oil painting, printmaking, terrazzo, and, most famously, mosaic art. Their large-scale mosaic created for Mother’s Building is considered to be the first publicly executed mosaic in San Francisco.
When John Galen Howard designed the building more than a century ago its function was that of a power house. Once the renovations are over the building will return to its original function, becoming the Switch Station #8. However, this time it will be fulfilling its original purpose as part of the Clean Energy Campus, helping Berkeley transition to 100% clean energy by 2030.
So, as the world is moving forward and humanity is marching into hopefully some more conscious and sustainable times, we shouldn’t forget our art. I say “our” because public art in deed is ours and before we start creating anew, we should take care of those old witnesses that silently and gracefully followed us through centuries. Decaying mosaic murals on our buildings, crumbling gargoyles on our churches, discolored stone sculptures gracing our squares, decaying canvases on our interior walls… Let’s revive them before it’s too late.